Michael J. Totten has written extensively on the Middle East and the conflict in Iraq for outlets such as the Wall Street Journal, TCS Daily, and his own blog, michaeltotten.com. Totten just returned from two weeks in Iraq, and for the next three weeks he’ll be blogging about his travels there. Totten spoke by phone with National Review Online’s media reporter, Stephen Spruiell, from Beirut, Lebanon on Wednesday.
National Review Online: You’ve just gotten back from Iraq and already posted a few stories on your blog. How much more can readers expect in the coming weeks?
Michael J. Totten: I’m going to be posting stories on the blog from Iraq for the next three weeks. I was there for two weeks and gathered an amazing amount of material. I’m going to be trying to go to Iran pretty soon, but I’ll be blogging for three weeks and writing a few freelance articles. Yet some of what I learned won’t ever get out of my notebook. That’s how experience-rich the place is.
NRO: Why did you limit your travel to Kurdistan?
Totten: I couldn’t go south of Kurdistan without quite a large security detail. Nobody goes to Baghdad without bodyguards. I raised enough on the blog to cover all the expenses, plus a small profit, but if I’d have hired bodyguards it would have been a whole other story.
NRO: You don’t read a lot in the major newspapers about Kurdistan these days. Did a desire to tell that story factor in as well as security concerns?
Totten: : It was very much both. I have a pretty good idea what’s going on in Baghdad–at least the bad stuff. It does look like Baghdad is pretty much a bad place. But I know the whole country isn’t like that, and journalists tend not to go to the places that are quiet. If I were reporting for a wire service where I had to file every day, I would want to go to places where things are happening every day.
But since Kurdistan is quiet, there are going to be a lot of things happening there that can’t happen in those other places. Things that are positive and things that I didn’t know were happening until I got there.
NRO: Such as?
Totten: Massive, and I mean massive, reconstruction. In Sulaymaniyah, there are 300,000 people living where three years ago there were only half as many. Like all massive urban immigration, most of the people are settling on the outskirts. But unlike in the most of the third world, the outskirts aren’t slums. They are so nice, in fact, that you might not believe you were in the Middle East. You would look at some of these pictures and swear that this wasn’t the Middle East at all.
The only exception is Halabja. Halabja still looks like a third-world country. This is the city that was gassed by Saddam Hussein. It was totally destroyed and had to start over at zero.
NRO: Why aren’t we hearing more about this kind of rebuilding in the U.S.?
Totten: The only thing you can really do is feature pieces or blogging. There’s not much wire-agency news that comes out of there. If I were a wire reporter, there would only have been one story I could have filed during the entire two weeks I was there. That would be the unification of the two Kurdish political parties to form one. In Erbil you had the Kurdish Democratic party, and in Sulaymaniyah you had the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. They had parallel governments, parallel administrations, and they are merging together to form one unified government.
But that’s a pretty big reason you’re not going to read about Kurdistan in the New York Times or Washington Post. But you can get it in periodicals. National Geographic had a terrific article about Kurdistan last month. It’s places like that where you’re going to get good reporting on Kurdistan.
NRO: Some people who were against deposing Saddam Hussein are now discounting Kurdistan’s success by saying, well, under Saddam, Kurdistan was protected by the no-fly zone, so Kurdistan would have been fine without U.S. action.
Totten: That’s not true. What people say and what you just said… and I didn’t realize that it wasn’t true until I got there. Almost all this construction I’m describing happened post-invasion. For two reasons. First, all of Iraq, including Kurdistan, was under sanction. The reconstruction was not economically possible. The second reason is that nobody had any confidence when Saddam was in Baghdad. Nobody could be sure that he wouldn’t come back. And it should be noted that not all of Kurdistan was protected by the no-fly zone. The city of Sulaymaniyah was not protected by the no-fly zone ever. Saddam could have rolled back in there and no one would have been there to stop him.
NRO: How would you describe the economy of Kurdistan? Could it be described as a free-market economy? How much does the government in Baghdad play a role?
Totten: It’s completely and utterly separate from the rest of Iraq. It’s all regulated by the Kurdistan regional government. Baghdad effectively doesn’t rule Kurdistan. It’s almost a foreign capital, and it’s treated as one. They describe themselves as a free-market economy, which is sort of true and sort of not true. The administration has its hand in most of the economy. They don’t regulate it–they take their cut, so to speak.
NRO: Is it corruption or is that just the way the government works?
Totten: It’s sort of both. Kurdish people describe it as corrupt because the government takes a percentage of their profits, but you could look at that as taxes because there is no formal taxation in Kurdistan. It infuriates a lot of the Kurdish people, but if you think about it as corporate taxation, then it’s not that different from other places.
NRO: What is the U.S. military presence like in Kurdistan?
Totten: I saw some off-duty soldiers at a hotel when I was checking in. I don’t know what they were doing there, but they were not working and I never saw them anywhere else. There are only 200 soldiers stationed in that entire region.
NRO: Is there still a lot of good feeling toward the United States?
Totten: It’s astonishing. It’s probably the most pro-American place in the world. Certainly the most pro-American place I’ve ever been.